"The broadsides rapped out one after another, crimson-scarlet tongues stagging into the smoke; the powder-boys flitted across the deck, down through the dreadnought screens past the sentry to the magazine and back with cartridge; the gun-crews heaved and grunted; the matches glowed; the rhythm hardly changed." - page 195
This book, the first in the Aubrey-Maturin series takes place during the Napoleonic Wars. Royal Navy officer Lieutenant Jack Aubrey is an anxious, crass and somewhat impetuous man. He has lately been promoted and given command of the sloop of war, the H.M.S. Sophie. During a dinner party in Port Mahon, Minorca he runs into Stephen Maturin, a physician and a natural philosopher. Aubrey is in need of a surgeon and both share an interest in classical music, influencing his choice to invite Maturin to join his crew. The Sophie is soon off, escorting ships across the Mediterranean, taking prizes ships and exchanging broadsides with the Spanish and French.
O'Brian published 20 books in the Aubrey-Maturin series and all are loosely based on historical events. He uses this to the book's advantage as his research allows for a close focus on details and the way of life on board a ship of the line. He also has a wide command of the English language, using various words like "mammothrept", "nacreous" and "gravamen" that I had to look up.
The two main protagonists, Aubrey and Maturin provide two differing points of view on naval life. Aubrey is the experienced "lifer" who has no problem making sacrifices to get the job done. Maturin being a physician places a high value on life and knows little of sailing, being more interested in flora and fauna. He acts as a foil and conscience for Aubrey, especially in the midst of conflict.
O'Brian also has a superb ability to evoke the past, describing scenes that feel authentic to time and place but are also engaging to read. For example, "To windward now, and he saw a sleepy line of gulls, squabbling languidly over a ripple on the sea - sardines or anchovies or maybe those little spiny mackerel. The sound of the creaking blocks, the gently straining cordage and sailcloth, the angle of living deck and the curved line of guns in front of him sent such a jet of happiness through his heart that he almost skipped where he stood." - page 77 As well, the action scenes were well paced and effective, with my favourite being the last battle.
As engaging as O'Brian's writing was, I found the story somewhat lacking. Aubrey and Maturin are obviously interesting characters but a majority of the book seemed committed to describing every detail of the Sophie. Some scenes were confusing and/or boring as they felt more like an encyclopaedia entry, spending pages on ship exercises. While I appreciate that O'Brian has extensive knowledge of ships of the line, I don't know the terminology, nor do I care to be educated on it in a book that's labelled "fiction".
In some ways the book felt as if it had been written for naval historians rather than the average Joe. For all that this book is I have to admit I liked the movie version better, despite the fact that it combined plots from various books in the series.
Somebody find Eli Wallach.
Mammothrept - to nourish
Gravamen - to weigh down
Nacreous - mother of pearl clouds